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90 days, 1300 bills, 150 legislators

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By Kim Thielman-Ibes
Montana’s 2011 legislative session is nearing the end
of its 62nd biennial assembly. From January 3 to April
21, this legislative session covered issues as diverse and
contentious as the death penalty, medical marijuana,
health care reform and eminent domain.
Every two years, 100 members of the state House and
50 members from the state Senate meet for 90 working
days. They spend this time addressing problems posed
by past legislatures and drafting bills pertaining to
today’s challenges.
The legislature came into the session on the heels of a
crippling economic recession, all touting the mantra:
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. The Republican majority in the House
(68 to 32) and Senate (28 to 22) was tempered by
Montana’s democratic governor. Their charter: Make
laws that maintain public order and ensure the basic
security of the state.
“Generally, the overriding issue the legislature
has to deal with is balancing the state budget,” said
Bob Brown, former Montana legislator and Secretary
of State.
This has been a difficult task. Entrenched philosophical
differences between democrats and republicans
have prevented movement toward common ground.
To compound that, Governor Schweitzer has threatened
to either veto the general budget bill, return it to
both houses with an amendatory veto, or let the bill
pass—which allows him to call legislators back for a
special session to remedy funding levels. Parties
disagree on two key issues.
The first is the amount of revenue the state is
expected to bring in over the next two years.
Republicans have based their budget on a more
conservative revenue forecast than the Governor’s
budget proposal.
“Our budget bill is about three percent lower than
the governor’s,” said Big Sky republican, Art Wittich.
“Given the economic downturn, state revenues
have decreased, while spending has grown.
Our state’s available balance has decreased by
more than $140 million since the end of January,
because we are spending into deficit each month.”
Also at issue is the availability of $100 million in
federal funds targeted primarily for social programs.
The governor and democrats want these
funds restored in the budget bill, while republicans
see these funds as a one-time revenue source
that will leave the state with financial commitments
it may not be able to meet in future years.
Several budget bills addressing K-12 education have
sparked rigorous debate. House Bill 403 (which
appears dead) and Senate Bill 329 change the way
oil and gas tax monies are distributed among school
districts, essentially redistributing funds from
booming oil-rich eastern Montana school districts to
less-fortunate districts across the state.
The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce has been watching
a number of bills. One is House Bill 316, sponsored
by Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad). This
bill transfers a larger portion of the lodging tax to the
state’s general fund.
Currently, a seven percent bed tax is collected at all
Montana lodging entities. Three percent of that goes
to the general fund, and four percent to support travel
related partners, including the Big Sky CVB, Montana
Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Montana Office of
Tourism. The bill proposes to send $3.8 million in
tourism funding to the state’s general fund.
Marne Hayes, Executive Director of Big Sky
Chamber of Commerce, said, “We need to protect
that four percent as we work to market Montana as
a vacation destination.”
Voters are also watching several bills that would
outlaw or severely tighten Montana’s medical marijuana
industry. House Bill 161 bans the legal use of
marijuana by July 1, requiring growers and sellers to
close within three months. Senate Bill 423 repeals the
current law by July 1, but in its place sets up a more
regulated industry. House Bill 175 sends the issue
back to voters in November. Hayes says the Big Sky
Chamber is watching House Bill 43, which addresses
medical marijuana in the workplace.
These bills, which are in various stages of the legislative
process, exemplify that doing the people’s business
has never been a simple task.
“State legislators have a wonderful honor and important
responsibility to provide governance for our
small Western state,” said Bob Brown. “I think some
imagine they have the weight of Western civilization
on their shoulders and can’t find it in themselves to
compromise.”
And compromise, despite
party affiliation,
is the cornerstone and
reality of our political
system. Passing a bill
is messy, complex
and frustrating
for even seasoned
legislators. Adding
to that complexity, a
third of this year’s legislators
are freshman.
The positive side of that
coin is that
all parties have a say in the
matter at hand.
“At the end of the day,
it’s tiring and it’s
maddening, but it
works,” said Senator
Wittich. “You
have so many
eyes looking
at each bill. It’s a reasoning process with people
from all over the state with different backgrounds
and abilities.”
Consider the success of the recently passed Workers’
Compensation bill, which included something
for everyone—the governor, republicans, democrats
and voters. The bill’s objective is to provide wage-loss
and medical benefits to a worker suffering from a
work-related injury or disease at a reasonable cost to
the employer. Montana workers’ compensation rates
have been the highest in the nation. This bill reduces
costs for employers by reforming claim closure and
settlements, and it refines guidelines for worker’s treatment
and choices of physicians. All parties agree this
landmark legislation is likely to save $100 million in its
first year alone, reducing workers’ compensation rates
an estimated 25 percent annually.
More than 2300 bills were requested for introduction
in the last legislative session (2009). Half made it to
the floor for a vote, and less than a quarter of them
(569) made it into law. This session, the number of
bills requested (by legislators and the public) and
introduced has been similar. Roughly, this means
each legislator has reviewed and voted on a minimum
of 14 new bills per day.
“It’s just in time legislation,” said Wittich, “I’ve
read every bill, whether on the floor or in committee.
I get calls and emails I try to absorb before
[making] a decision. 150 legislators all focusing on different things—and it winnows down from there.
Think about it, if you had a good idea, could
you get 77 people to agree with the exact
idea of your exact wording?”
More 2011 legislative information
is available at:
leg.mt.gov

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